What’s delaying BTS selling?

Photo: Walmart
Aug 25, 2017
Tom Ryan

This year’s back-to-school (BTS) period is suffering from procrastination. The causes, according to shoppers, are varied, ranging from wanting to see what is trend-right to waiting for the best deals to arrive.

According to the NRF’s annual Back-to-School Shopping Survey, the average family with children in grades K-12 had completed only 45 percent of their shopping as of early August. That’s down from a peak of 52 percent at the same time in 2013 and 48 percent last year, and the lowest level since 40 percent in 2012.

Of parents surveyed August 1 to 9, only 13 percent had completed all their shopping, and 23 percent had not started at all. The results stand in the face of earlier data showing that 27 percent of parents said they planned to start shopping at least two months before the start of school this year, up from 22 percent last year.

Not surprisingly, shoppers give the same reasons for the delays as those heard earlier in the decade when the trend first occurred:

  • Hitting trends: Consumers are postponing purchases of apparel, backpacks and footwear until kids see what’s trendy this fall;
  • Waiting on deals: Much like the holiday selling period, some consumers are holding out until the biggest discounts arrive late in the season, particularly on big-ticket items like laptops;
  • Closer to need: The generally hot weather across the country works against the buy-now-wear-now trend for many BTS wearables (outerwear, sweaters, etc.), and stocking up on school supplies can also wait until classes start.

Other reasons given in the past for some of the delays have been: general consumer caution, later school start dates, and needing to find out about school requirements.

The changes are prompting retailers to extend BTS, the second-largest selling season after winter holiday. Some retailers are promoting as early as late June and sales continue through late September.

The early deals may be paying off. According to Deloitte’s 2017 Back-to-School survey, shoppers who start before August are likely to spend 16 percent more than those starting in August or later.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What’s delaying back-to-school purchasing? Should retailers begin promoting earlier in the season, delay them until shoppers are more ready to buy, or use a mixed approach?

"I think we have to wait until the final bell has rung (hah!) before declaring success or failure. I would implore retailers to leave the prices alone."
"I think Amazon Prime Day in July has some responsibility for distorted BTS shopping patterns as well."
"Retailers would be smart to monitor day-in and day-out value in relation to the competition rather than getting trigger happy with promotions."

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14 Comments on "What’s delaying BTS selling?"

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Art Suriano

Today’s consumers are wise and know that the longer they hold out, the more likely they’ll get bigger discounts. That’s a hard trend to change. Yes, there are other reasons like waiting to see what their children need and what the other students are wearing. But consumers today know that by mid-September the prices will be dropping. The holiday season keeps beginning earlier, or at least it seems to, and yet every year the consumers are shopping later and later. back-to-school is no different. Some retailers start promoting BTS in late June. For most, school just got out. So are parents thinking about September with their whole summer ahead of them?

Perhaps retailers would do better narrowing the seasons, saving millions of dollars on advertising and reinvesting those dollars into their stores so when the customers do come in, they have a much better customer experience and wind up spending a lot more.

Ralph Jacobson

BTS is just another example of the U.S. trend that shows shoppers are making purchases closer to the time of consumption than in the past. There are multiple reasons for this, some of which are mentioned in the article. So should retailers promote seasonal campaigns earlier and earlier each year? Not necessarily. Promoting Christmas in July has not truly driven more overall revenue. I like blended promotions that launch a seasonal campaign with a concurrent messaging of another campaign. For instance, BTS can be promoted early while the same product can be used for a different message, like home office restocking, etc.

Paula Rosenblum

I think the whole BTS season is now totally distorted because school opening times vary so much across the U.S. I think we simply have to wait until the final bell has rung (hah!) before declaring success or failure, and I would implore retailers to leave the prices alone. It’s not about price. No one wants to go clothes shopping (or anything else for that matter) when it’s 95 degrees outside. Sometimes, patience is a virtue.

Retailers seem to have forgotten how to be patient.

Meaghan Brophy

I agree that consumers are holding out for prices to drop and to see which trends take hold this fall. However, I think Amazon Prime Day in July has some responsibility for distorted BTS shopping patterns as well. Prime Day sales grew 60 percent over the last year with tens of millions of Prime members taking advantage of deals on July 11th. Amazon’s 2017 Prime Day sales beat out their numbers for Black Friday and Cyber Monday. This newly-invented retail holiday in the middle of summer has the average consumer spending more than they traditionally would during that time period, so it makes sense that larger BTS purchases would be pushed back in the wake of Prime Day purchases.

Carol Spieckerman

BTS is turning into more of a prolonged, dispersed season than a concentrated event thanks to the varying school schedules across the country. Buying closer to need is also a big factor with Amazon possibly playing a larger role than even the weather. Shoppers are buying closer to need because they can. Why hit the stores when you can order on Amazon Prime and get it the following day (and send back whatever doesn’t work)? Retailers would be smart to monitor day-in and day-out value in relation to the competition rather than getting trigger happy with promotions.

Neil Saunders

Part of it is the usual game of cat and mouse: retailers want shoppers to buy early at higher prices, shoppers hold off as they know retailers will get nervous and discount. The early discounts this year were not that great, so shoppers are probably waiting. It works too: last month Crayola crayons at Target were $1.37, now they’re 50 cents!

Cathy Hotka

Art Suriano is right. This is just another symptom of savvy shoppers, with access to tons of information, waiting to get the best deals on everything. It has also been hot on the East Coast, so there’s no reason for parents to buy sweaters and other cooler-weather items. There used to be several selling seasons; now there have to be dozens.

Joan Treistman

The prevalent factors as stated above are price deals, scattered school schedules, heat and waiting to see fashion trends. I’m wondering if those fashion and school equipment trends are not changing as dramatically year to year as they did some time ago.

What’s in the BTS basket? Could it be that there is no need to buy as much as there was in the past? It’s hard to imagine kids (of a certain age, maybe all ages) not wanting something “new.” And of course, clothing sizes changes as children grow. But what about the other stuff?

I’d love to hear about this from the folks responding to this article. Thanks in advance.

Lee Peterson

Everything’s instant now, so why run out early? Smart consumers, which includes Digital Natives of course, wait to see what their environment is like before purchasing anything (clothing, certain supplies, garbage cans, etc.) because they can get it NOW. What’s the rush?

Remember, the retail environment over the last few years has been a consumer paradise. These are the most spoiled consumers in the history of retail. They get what they want when they want it and how they want it. At least, they’d better or they’re not your customers anymore.

Dan Raftery

The above comments have hit the major factors driving the current sluggish numbers, IMHO. Now think about how purchase behavior change is transferred up the supply chain, if you want more bad news. Whether sold online or in a store, inventory must be there waiting for the shopper to show up. Most BTS products require significant lead time to manufacture and transport to that last DC.

Retailers of all stripes have been delaying their POs for seasonal events for several years. So, as this cycle continues to feed on itself, the only viable solution to the unintended consequence of running out of stock, is to hold inventory farther up the supply chain.

While this is painful (costly) for manufacturers, some recognize that inventory can be a powerful sales tool, if managed well.

Peter Charness

Betting it’s not just late, it’s happening online without a lot of indication of that factor. Let’s see what’s more fun, BTS shopping in store madcap mayhem and long lines, or sitting at home quietly adding items to your shopping cart, and a convenient home delivery a day or 2 later….

James Tenser

Interesting comment, Peter. It makes me wonder whether some back-to-school purchases are in fact camouflaged because folks are ordering some items online. I hope the researchers have accounted for at least some of that effect in their methodology. Meanwhile here in Arizona, the in-store frenzy is already over — classes started a week ago. Local retailers are already working out how to get the Halloween candy onto the shelves in 100-degree weather without a melt-down.

Paul Donovan

On a recent BTS visit to a physical office supply store (not a common undertaking), I noticed about 10+people waiting for quite some time in checkout line with one person serving and less than 3-4 associates in the whole store. I decided to exit without purchase and do the purchase later (online). I don’t like to typically use anecdotes as common practice, but this was quite alarming to see given the stress this retail sub vertical has been under.

Min-Jee Hwang

Back-to-school shopping is being delayed by shoppers waiting on the best deals. Consumers today are conditioned to shop when the deals hit but we are also all aware the deeper discounts are at the end of sales. If retailers start earlier, they need to be targeted campaigns to really incentivize shoppers to start early. On the other hand, by delaying promotions you may be neglecting early bird shoppers. Retailers need to analyze their competitor’s trends to stay aware of their next move and be prepared. Also, retailers need to begin emphasizing limited-time offers to get consumers through the doors and offer more value to incentive buying now instead of waiting for better sales later on.

"I think we have to wait until the final bell has rung (hah!) before declaring success or failure. I would implore retailers to leave the prices alone."
"I think Amazon Prime Day in July has some responsibility for distorted BTS shopping patterns as well."
"Retailers would be smart to monitor day-in and day-out value in relation to the competition rather than getting trigger happy with promotions."

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